There may be just as many questions surrounding the 2010 season opener at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium as there are fans sitting in a stadium expanded by about half as many seats. There will be some blue here, and some white over there, but most figure to be inhabited by U of L fans anxious to see what their new head coach can deliver.
Charlie Strong took over for Steve Kragthorpe, and Strong’s first opponent is coached by a close friend – a man he once pledged to hire if and when he ever got a head coaching job.
Joker Phillips made a similar promise. But wouldn’t you know, both men landed their first top jobs in the same year. And in the same state. And on Saturday, Sept. 4, they’ll be working in the same place.
Unlike their dreaded rivals, UK fans know all about their guy. He’s the same person who was calling those explosive plays during the 2006 season as the offensive coordinator. Phillips since has turned over those duties to Randy Sanders, whose trigger man (whichever quarterback wins the starting job) isn’t likely to prompt the same sort of Heisman talk that Andre’ Woodson once did.
And while the Kentucky teams of four and five years ago could move the football on virtually any opponent, they never did feature a defensive unit that struck fear in the hearts of opposing OCs. And this, despite the fact that the Wildcats featured the likes of Wesley Woodyard, Braxton Kelley, Myron Pryor, Jeremy Jarmon, Corey Peters and Trevard Lindley – all of whom are in NFL camps right now.
This year’s squad MIGHT have similar talent, but it has yet to show itself on a consistent basis.
After a three-way battle for the job that lasted until the Monday prior to the summer’s final scrimmage, Mike Hartline emerged as the starting quarterback for the third consecutive season.
So, assuming he remains healthy and atop the depth chart until opening day, he’ll be the one handing the ball off, or flipping it in the flats, to a runner with world class (for football) speed in Derrick Locke. The senior tailback, who at one point in ’06 was the salvation of the running game, will carry most of the load. In the spring game, Donald Russell and Jonathon George showed the battle for the backup spot will be fun to watch. During summer camp, true freshman Raymond Sanders III has turned the collective head of the coaching staff.
More than any loss of personnel on the line (Christian Johnson, Zipp Duncan, Jorge Gonzalez and Justin Jeffries), the graduation of John Conner might be the most costly to the offense. Generally rated the best fullback in the country, Conner’s crushing blocks consistently delighted the fans, as well as his coaches and teammates. And he proved himself adept both at running the ball in short-yardage situations and as a receiver. Any viewer of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” program can tell you, the New York Jets coaching staff already has fallen in love with the former Wildcat.
Moncell Allen has moved from tailback to fullback; the “Turtle” freely admits he’s no John Conner, but promises to bring a flavor to the position all his own.
And even though the O-line did lose people, it retained experienced hands who either started or played significant minutes, including Billy Joe Murphy, Brad Durham Larry Warford and Stuart Hines, who was named third-team All-SEC at guard.
The center spot is open with the departure of Gonzalez, but Marcus Davis, Matt Smith and Jake Lanefski give the coaching staff several options, as does redshirt freshman Samuel Simpson, who was recruited as a center but saw time last spring at guard. Down the stretch, Smith and Lanefski appear to be running one-two, meaning Davis and Simpson could provide depth at the guard spots as well.
Phillips and his staff are still looking for a tight end to lay claim to the job the way Jacob Tamme did, although Phillips says he’s more interested in big blocks than spectacular catches. Nick Melillo was running first-team when he was hobbled with an ankle injury, allowing true freshman Tyler Robinson the opportunity to show what he can do.
“I really, really like what Tyler Robinson is bringing to us,” Phillips said. “He’s a guy that understands football. He understands how to get on people in the block game. He’s not a guy who’s going to stretch the field, but he’s got a chance to work the underneath zone.”
Anthony Kendrick and transfer Ryan Wallace are contending for time at tight end, but Alex Smith, a highly-touted incoming freshman from Cincinnati, has yet to make an impact.
You could dig out whatever paragraphs described the receiving corps at this time last year and apply them again, with a few different names. Randall Cobb is one of the top playmakers in the league, and senior Chris Matthews believes he’s ready to do the same. LaRod King, Matt Roark and Gene McCaskill showed flashes at times last year, but McCaskill will have to wait for next season, after tearing a knee ligament. King has nursed a minor injury in summer camp, which has set him back and prevented him from developing into an effective third receiver.
Phillips is hoping Hartline can spend the rest of the summer working on his rapport with the veteran wideouts. “A couple of the young receivers aren’t stepping up and doing as well as we thought they would,” he said. “So many times, (the third receiver) is the guy the quarterback is supposed to go to. If I’m a defense, I’m going to roll coverages to Randall Cobb, and the way Matthews is playing, I’d roll coverages to him. So that third guy’s gotta get open. So many times, that guy’s not stepping up for us. We need LaRod King to get healthy.”
Playing time is there for the taking for unproven wideouts such as E.J. Fields, Aaron Boyd and Brian Adams, should any of them catch enough balls to work their way up the depth chart. Adams, a redshirt freshman, intrigued the coaches coming into camp. At 6-foot-4, 217 lbs., he has the size, speed and hands, but he also has been set back with a nagging ankle injury.
The quarterback question gets the headlines and sparks the talk-show phone calls, but of greater concern might be the defense.
Lindley’s departure is a concern but his injury last season forced Randall Burden to play with more intensity at cornerback, and he was up to the challenge. Burden made 36 tackles, broke up eight passes and picked off two. Cartier Rice provides depth behind him, and on the other side veteran Paul Warford (32 tackles, 6 PBU) returns for his senior season.
Winston Guy is solid at free safety; on the strong side, junior-college transfer Mychal Bailey has made the strongest impression lately. “He’s playing faster than anybody right now,” Phillips said. “He doesn’t always know what to do, and that’s what we talk about. If you don’t know what to do, you better play fast.”
Bailey, another talented alumnus of Georgia’s Lagrange High School (think Wesley Woodyard, Braxton Kelley), sports the dreadlocks favored by teammate and fellow safety Winston Guy, as well as several NFL defensive backs. But Bailey says he wants to make his own mark. “I’ve got my own game,” he said. “I want everyone to see my game. I’ve seen everybody else. I want them to see Mychal Bailey’s game.”
The front seven is what could be keeping defensive coordinator Steve Brown walking the halls at night. He has to replace middle linebacker Micah Johnson and outside ‘backer Sam Maxwell, one of the best in the SEC last year. Proven veteran Danny Trevathan will play the weak side. Jacob Dufrene and Ridge Wilson will try to live up to the positive talk they generated during spring drills. And in the middle, junior Ronnie Sneed gets the chance he’s coveted for two seasons, but he’ll be pushed by redshirt freshman Qua Huzzie – a name that constantly came up during spring drills when Phillips was asked about young players on the rise. During summer camp, Huzzie has been trying to play through an injury – a blister that got so bad, he said, the skin was falling off his foot before he finally sought treatment.
Up front, senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin, who was dependable last year (26 tackles, 1.5 TFL) has to become the impact player Peters had been. There are several candidates for the other DT spot, but none is Mister Cobble. A projected starter, the redshirt freshman didn’t make grades last year, so he’ll sit out this season.
Phillips and staff are watching lightly-used senior Shane McCord, freshman Donte Rumph (who finally qualifed after two seasons in prep school) and another freshman, Elliott Porter. A high school All-American from Louisiana, Porter initially signed with LSU. But the Tiger coaching staff realized it had signed too many players and rescinded the offer to Porter. UK’s new defensive line coach, David Turner, had recruited Turner doggedly for his previous employer, Mississippi State. So when Porter became available, Turner convinced him to head for Lexington.
Left defensive end DeQuin Evans says he’ll be healthy and ready to shake off the sprained knee that hampered him in the spring. On the other end, Collins Ukwu will battle Taylor Wyndham, who made enough plays last season (28 tackles, two sacks, 6.5 TFL) that he was able finally to become known as someone other than The Guy Who Knocked Out Tim Tebow.
Ryan Tydlacka is a proven commodity as a punter but the real puzzlement is, Which kicker will provide the scoring? Will it be Craig McIntosh, who showed some leg last season, both from placement and with the kickoff squad; or will true freshman Joe Mansour be up to the job? The sooner the coaching staff has that answer, the better. But know this: In practice on Monday, Mansour connected from 50 yards out, and it could have been 60. Your humble correspondent was a witness.
Locke and Guy will be dependable in the kickoff return game; Cobb will handle punts once again. But the loss of tailback Alfonso Smith, one of the top gunners in the league, might be a factor in the coverage game. Perhaps Bailey, who has a similar combination of 4.3 speed and the willingness to drill somebody, is up for the job. It’s what got Smith into camp with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
If the Wildcats can make it four straight wins over the Cardinals, they have a chance to enter SEC play 3-0, following matchups with Western Kentucky and Akron. Then they slam head first into conference action. Florida and Mississippi have big holes to fill. Kentucky visits both before coming home for what has become a tradition – a huge home stand, featuring beatable opponents. This time it’s Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia.
Then it’s the trip to Starkville, where the Cats have won crucial games each of the past two trips.
After a non-conference game with Charleston Southern, Vanderbilt visits, and then it’s off to Knoxville to take on Tennessee, and The Streak.
How will the season play out? We’ll make our prediction next week.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 22-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)